“Factory Farming”: An Evolving Phrase

Posted in: Animal Rights

When I first heard the phrase “factory farming,” years ago, the words seemed to represent a guilty verdict against animal agriculture. What many had believed were “farms” were actually hideous, concentrated zones of immense cruelty to cows, sheep, chickens, and other domesticated living beings. After confronting the horrors of “factory farming” and resolving to do something about it, many felt inspired to become vegan.

The import of the words used to describe a system of intensive animal agriculture that began less than a hundred years ago has changed. Lone bumper stickers that read “Abolish Factory Farming” no longer adorn the cars of vegans, and people who say that they oppose factory farming often go on to praise what they call “local, sustainable, humane” animal operations. What had been a motivating image for vegans has thus effectively become an advertisement for “conscientious carnivores.” This column explores what might have led to this metamorphosis.

The “Original Meaning” of Factory Farming

The phrase “factory farming” once meant that our mental image of how “food animals” had lived bore no resemblance to reality. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that my positive images came from a combination of children’s books (like “All Creatures Great and Small”) and pictures on containers of cows’ milk. Imagining sweet and peaceful lives for farmed beings, I was in for a rude awakening.

It turned out that an overwhelming majority of animal products consumed in the United States were coming from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where tens of thousands of animals might be standing side by side, often on concrete, surrounded by toxic fumes (from their concentrated waste products) that burned their lungs. The animals would frequently have barely enough room to extend their limbs, and they might never see the outdoors until the day they would be sent to slaughter in a truck more barren, filthy, smelly, crowded, and frightening than the shed where they had lived their short and painful lives. The slaughterhouse was yet another level of hell for those innocent, gentle beings. A far cry from Old MacDonald’s farm.

I saw a lot of footage of these places, densely populated with animals but also with misery, dust, and human indifference. I also read accounts of what such “farms” looked and smelled like for people who had worked there. “Factory farms” denied animals the fulfillment of virtually every natural instinct and desire that they might have. Birds like chickens could not fly or nest or roost. Mammals like dairy cattle could not spend any time with their new babies to whom they had bonded immediately. Curious and social creatures had no opportunity to explore or play.

No reputable scientist today credits René Descartes’s view of animals as insensate machines that only appear to have feelings. Yet one scholar insightfully described factory farming as the apotheosis of Descartes’s vision. I appreciated—as anyone who took in the facts would appreciate—that the only just response to what I was witnessing was to stop consuming the output of animal industry. The factory farm was best understood as the market’s way of meeting people’s insatiable demand for animal products.

It might have been tempting at times to blame the people who owned, ran, or worked at factory farms for the suffering of the animals. Yet those who thought about it a lot generally understood that we were all the reason that animals were enduring so much agony. If everyone stopped consuming animal products, then no one would carry out factory farming operations. People would produce something else. By injecting demand into the factory farming system, we were what was making it run. This is not to exonerate owners of factory farms, but it is to identify causal responsibility for the operation where it properly belongs, with the consumer.

The New Meaning

I am not sure when exactly it happened, but we no longer use the phrase “factory farming” in the same way. Factory farming has stopped being the current face of animal farming and has instead become the “bad” kind of animal farming that has nothing to do with any of us. Almost everyone now seems to agree that factory farming is cruel to animals and bad for the environment as well as unhealthful, but that agreement does not appear to have had any significant behavioral consequences. What happened?

I first noticed the change upon moving to Ithaca, when one of my colleagues told me that after I visited the local farmers’ market, I would no longer want to be vegan. Why not? I asked. She told me that at the farmer’s market was a man who sold duck meat and that he sometimes brought some of his live ducks with him. The ducks were gorgeous and so obviously happy and well cared for, she exclaimed, that I would feel completely comfortable about eating them.

I found my colleague’s claims puzzling. If I were to meet a group of beautiful, happy, and healthy ducks, that certainly would not make me want someone to slaughter them. I regularly meet happy and healthy dogs and have never felt close to “coming around” to the view that we ought to be eating or otherwise harming them. Same with calves. Same with lambs. What she said struck me as a non-sequitur.

Shortly after that conversation, though, I began noticing slightly different descriptions of factory farming everywhere, including in the literature distributed by some animal protection organizations. Rather than a hell-scape representing the logical conclusion of believing that we are entitled to breed and consume other sentient beings for food and clothing, the descriptions sounded more like critiques of how factory farmers were treating their animals. The change was subtle enough to have evaded my notice before, but now speakers were referring to factory farming as a deviant and cruel way of doing something that is ordinarily honorable and good.

The book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and the recent movie based on that book, strike me as the perfect expression of this new vision of factory farming. I should say first that I found the book very moving and powerful in depicting animal suffering. I objected mainly to the apparent view that the solution to factory farming is to farm animals the way we supposedly used to do it, “humanely.”

The author even praised a former vegan for opening up a slaughterhouse so that she could make sure that animals there would be slaughtered “humanely.” And from what I have heard about the film, it is even more strongly in the “move to better animal farming” camp, failing to even entertain the option of no longer consuming animal meat, dairy, and eggs at all. I did not see the film, however, so I cannot attest to this omission.

My colleague’s message now made perfect sense. If what is wrong with factory farming is the “factory”—which, as I shall explain momentarily, is an ill-defined idea—then a man who takes good care of “his” ducks before beheading them should ease my conscience about consuming their bodies. This argument is problematic for at least two reasons.

First, if a sentient living being feels good and healthy and happy, I cannot justify depriving her of her life if I have other options. Factory farming originally woke me and others up to the fact that the animals whom we were using for food and clothing have feelings and suffer and want to live out their lives. Having realized and fully absorbed this, I no longer wanted to play any role in sending animals to the slaughterhouse, however lovely their pre-slaughter abode.

Second, even if one cares only about eliminating “factory farming” of animals, one needs to think about what caused this phenomenon in the first place. The answer mostly comes down to consumer demand. If everyone continues to consume large quantities of animal meat, dairy, and eggs, and the human population continues to grow, then factory farms will expand and become even more crowded and horrible as a result. The Earth does not have enough space for the “kind” farming model to scale up to the quantity people want to eat. Demand itself would have to drop before birds would have room to stretch out their wings on the factory floor.

Not surprisingly, many people who want to continue to consume animal products but who also want to feel they are ethical consumers have paid a little extra for “organic” (which has virtually nothing to do with animal treatment), “local” (which also has little to do with it), “grass-fed” (which need not mean that animals get to go outside), “sustainable” (which means almost nothing, animal-related or otherwise), and “humane” (which has no standard meaning either, other than the obvious one which is completely irreconcilable with slaughter).

Consider the image that you have of a “free range” turkey farm. Yet a film crew producing the documentary “Speciesism: The Movie,” visited a “free range” turkey farm and recorded deplorable conditions. Thousands of turkeys stood inches apart from one another as a worker carried out the corpses of turkeys who had died (before having their throats cut) under the conditions prevailing there. If the crowding at that “farm” did not qualify the place as a factory farm, then the phrase had lost all meaning.

From a logical standpoint, it is clear that if demand for animal products remains constant or rises, then factory farms will continue to meet that demand. One cannot beat the system by buying from a nice farmer who does things differently, because he or she will eventually attract enough customers to start crowding the animals too, or else a competitor will and claim (also falsely) that they run a “humane” operation.

Worse perhaps is the fact that people who buy from “family farmers” (a phrase that refers to ownership, not animal wellbeing, but which sounds wholesome) have not necessarily replaced what they used to buy from factory farms. Many people to whom I have spoken consider their supposedly non-factory purchases to be affirmatively virtuous, such that the people can feel good about it and therefore also continue to buy the conventional products they were accustomed to buying.

An Analogy

I have been spending some of my time recently thinking about the law of rape. Some feminists have spoken of rape as “violent.” Specifically, they have said that rape is a crime of violence, not of sex. This contrast was presumably meant to help people understand that there is a very significant difference between consensual sex (which is about sex) and rape (which is about violence).

While feminists were arguing that rape was a violent crime, others (non-feminists/misogynists) began using the “violence” concept to distinguish between different types of rape. Some types are violent, while others are “not so bad.” For people making this claim, the phrase “violent rape” meant one of the bad types of rape that we should all condemn. The difference in perspective was between the view that “rape is violent,” on the one hand, and the view that “only some rape is violent/counts as rape,” on the other. Even though the words were the same, “violent rape” meant different things to different people.

As we have seen, the phrase “factory farming” has lent itself to similarly opposing definitions. And some vegans have felt the rhetorical challenge of trying to persuade our peers to dispose of the term and embrace the moral implications of its original meaning: animal consumption leads to factory farms.

This is why I cringe a little bit now when someone from an animal protection organization uses the phrase “factory farms” and declares that they are fighting against such places. Why not just say they are fighting the exploitation and slaughter of animals and leave the farming modality out of it? I suspect that they say “factory farming” to avoid annoying their donors, people who may not want to hear someone urge them to become vegan as the only plausible foundation from which to end factory farming. If I am right, then the cooperative arrangement between “humane” farms (and generally factory farms as well, as no one describes their own enterprise as a “factory farm”) and organizations that are supposed to be dedicated to protecting domesticated animals is ethically troubling, particularly for organizations that say they want a “vegan world.”

Animal groups touting their opposition to “factory farming” sometimes claim that they want to meet people where they are. I understand that and support kindness toward people who are not yet vegan. But there has to be a better way than to say things that make it sound like the organization has no objection to animal farming that (allegedly) rejects the “factory” model. To offer an analogy, I have never heard a feminist say that she is fighting the good fight against “violent types of rape,” on the theory that she needs to meet people where they are.

One can say “I know you eat a lot of animal products right now, and veganism seems an unrealistic goal. But I am here to support you, to answer any questions you might have, and to tell you that there is life after animal products. There is a good life for you and for the animals you spare.” To reject animal farming may seem radical, but it is an honest and effective way to grapple with almost unthinkable animal cruelty, mind-boggling both in quality and in scale. It appears that the phrase “factory farming”—which now means “bring back happy meat”—has outlived its utility.